Robert Christgau has long been held as the dean of rock criticism and perhaps the discipline's greatest practitioner.
He listens widely, with an open mind, and has over his 40 years in the business been bang-on right more often than any other critic, especially when it comes to pop, world music, and the important work of separating the minor pleasures from the major artists. His review of the Ramones' Rocket to Russia is a high-water mark of writing about popular music: Celebrating the Ramones' formal brilliance, he achieved a formal brilliance of his own.
But often these days his reviews -- always as tight and dense as bouillon cubes -- can tend toward the inscrutable. (He posts a couple times a week on his Expert Witness blog.) To aid the perplexed, we've taken the liberty of annotating a pair of his recent write-ups, a process something like adding water back to astronaut food.1. Christgau notes that Dawson's small label would never indulge in the dubious practice of packing half-assed bonus tracks onto pricey limited editions of a new record. Instead, Dawson's Great Crap Factory imprint heaps those half-assed tracks onto the original release. Christgau opposes "Deluxe Edition"s, but in this case he finds that he values practicality over principle. Note: His sentence is humorous. 2. Christgau faults Dawson for her inconsistent support for public libraries. 3. Here, Christgau settles in to close listening. He determines that Dawson is a lump, not a crank, and that her artistic achievement is that of "whimsy and/or confessional." These observations -- as well as his dash through the particulars of her family life -- tell us what the record sounds like. 4. Tracks 13-16, remember, are fans-only, anti-library swill. 5. These are songs on the record that Christgau liked for some reason. 6. It is not the duty of the critic to offer a persuasive and informative consideration of an artist's work based upon the presentation of well-observed evidence. Instead, it is the critic's duty to "add" to the work of the artist, which of course languishes not quite completed until gilded by a professional appreciator. Here Christgau demonstrates great humility and restraint, "merely" adding a bon mot comprehensible only to readers already well acquainted with the art under review. (Note: This is the audience all reviewers should write to.) If you haven't yet heard Thunder Thighs, trust us -- Christgau's zinger about some cities' police officers being pretty nice people is delish. 1. Christgau wants you to know that he knows that Eric Church's Chief is something of a concept record, one whose songs' protagonists mature from the callow fool-around of track one into the reflective grownup suffering real heartbreak on track 14. Since he knows this, you should, too, preferably before reading the review. Note: The antecedent for "it" is "album," not "idea." 2. The "big dog" that Christgau is incapable of feeling is one song's alpha-male protagonist rather than an actual dog, or Toby Keith. 3. In "Keep On," the "big dog" asks the girlfriend of a cowboy to dance. This leads to a dangerous confrontation, apparently with a friend of Robert Christgau's. (This kind of thing happens -- big dog Lou Reed once spent half a live album attacking Christgau.) 4. In the final verse of "Keep On," Church's alpha-male protagonist has sex with a woman he met in a bar. Christgau recognizes this as an impossible fiction. 5. The antecedent of "he" is the "studly barfly" of sentence one. Also, Christgau is Yoda. 6. Christgau praises Church for literacy. 7. To Christgau, "blowing" means "writing songs worthy of a grade of A- but not quite worthy of being described in terms of, like, sound." 8. Christgau has assigned you to "check" the song "Homeboy" to be sure you notice the clever thing in it that Christgau did. 9. It is a truth universally acknowledged that one harbors faint reservations regarding the moralism of "Homeboy." 10.Christgau appreciates how the titles of Church songs take on richer meanings as the verses accumulate, and he notes that without such wordplay Church's sex scenes would be insufficiently manned up. 11. On a bottle label, "Jack Daniel's" includes an apostrophe. Eric Church's song title "Jack Daniels" does not. In a 157-word review, this is essential. 12. Jack Daniel's, Bruce Springsteen, and Jesus all turn up in Eric Church's song titles. Note: Music criticism need not concern itself with matters beyond the tracklist or the lyric sheet. 13. The antecedent of the "he" here is either the "studly barfly," Eric Church himself, or -- if you read too quickly -- Jesus. Either way, Christgau considers this "he" unworthy of the affections of the woman described in the song "Like Jesus Does," whether his wordsmithing mans things up or not. 14. Chief is a country music record, but to come right out and say so would be gauche. 15. What Christgau means is "In the song 'Country Music Jesus,' Church imagines a new messiah-- a 'long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash' -- here to deliver Music Row from its sorry state." 16. Christgau recommends Chief because Church -- or maybe that "studly barfly" -- seems bright and decent. Also, the antecedent of "he" is Jesus and "Johnny Cash imitator."